Unusual Attitudes: The Balancing Act

Martha Lunken

When a private-pilot applicant around here can't scare up another examiner and is desperate enough to call me for a practical test, I tell him (for me, that means male, female or unknown) to plan a flight any place he wants to go … well, someplace that's at least a couple of hundred miles away. I hope he chooses a destination he might actually want to go to when he's licensed … like for a golf weekend or to visit the grandkids or to enjoy deliciously wicked trysts with a friend (female, male or unknown).

Since he probably learned to fly at an airport with at least one long, hard-surface runway, it's unlikely he's ever looked at the charts and computed his takeoff distance "for real"; that's something you do for the written exam. Being a couple of hundred pounds overweight is illegal but not particularly unsafe with 6,000 feet of concrete ahead of you. And getting the single-engine Cessna or Piper he's been flying out of CG limits is remote unless the fuel tanks are full and he and his instructor are the size of sumo wrestlers. So he's been programmed to fill 'er up, or at least fill "to the tabs," before every flight.

Because this aspect of flying has been so "canned" and is such a non-event, I ask him to plan and work the numbers for two very different scenarios. In the first real-world situation, with two of us in front (me at 105 pounds) and no baggage, I know he'll plan the flight with full fuel, as usual. But then I tell him two buddies are coming along — great big guys — and we're all pretty serious fishermen. So if we carry only the required fuel for this day's VFR flight, just how big can they be and how much gear can we carry? This means computing our estimated time en route that day, using the winds aloft at our best altitude (based on winds and ceiling) and adding in the weight of fuel — but only the minimum legal fuel for time to destination plus 30 minutes. I'm hoping he adds these weights (the empty airplane, the two of us and the minimum fuel) then subtracts that number from the maximum allowable gross weight, and I'm hoping the numbers he uses come from this airplane's data and not the sample problem in the handbook. So how many pounds of "bubbas" and tackle boxes can we haul? And if he's (rightly) concerned about all that weight in the back, he'd better tell me I have to trade places with Mike the Moose and climb in a rear seat.

I'm always amazed that this seems to be such an "off the wall" concept and that I get calls from CFIs outraged because I encouraged their guys to fly with minimum fuel. C'mon, we all know that flying anywhere with the bare minimum fuel your whiz wheel (or computer program) says is legal satisfies only one person, the FAA inspector investigating the subsequent fuel exhaustion accident. It's imprudent, not to mention unhealthy. But pilots need to understand and appreciate the versatility of light airplanes and to grasp the concept of "loading for the mission." Because an airplane is designed with four seats and 60-gallon fuel tanks doesn't mean you can load it with four people and 60 gallons of 100LL. Passengers, baggage and a long way to go probably mean you'll have to limit the fuel or leave Mike the Moose and some tackle boxes behind — or, hey, plan an en route fuel stop.

During the oral part of the test I'll ask him what the performance charts say is our takeoff distance over a 50-foot obstacle (at maximum gross takeoff weight) when we launch on this January day in southern Ohio; how about on a July afternoon at Ingalls Field in Hot Springs, Virginia (the highest airport east of the Mississippi)? And when we talk about short- and soft-field takeoffs, I want my fledgling friend to demonstrate one but also to understand that those numbers came from professional test pilots flying brand-new airplanes with finely tuned engines — and maybe tweaked a bit by the sales department.

So now that I've scared off every potential private-pilot applicant in the Midwest, I'll tell you why knowing how to load the airplane and how to get it into the air from a short or soft field is so important to me.

"It was a dark and stormy night" … well, no kidding, it really was. Probably about 9 o'clock on a Tuesday in mid-January with the wind howling and the snow blowing sideways around a little shack on the south line at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio. Eight of us were huddled inside Bob Herweh's Aero Services for our weekly private-pilot ground school with ace instructor Larry "Whipstall" Whitesell at the podium, a turned-around cigarette machine.

My sister Mary and I were pretty knowledgeable going in since we'd read every aviation book we could find from the FAA's Private Pilot Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge to Wolfgang Langewiesche's iconic Stick and Rudder. Larry said we were getting ahead of ourselves because, between the two of us, we hadn't amassed 10 hours in the air — it was the dead of winter in the Midwest and we were learning to fly in an Ercoupe. But we read and talked incessantly about strange new concepts like angle of attack and wind triangles and airspeed vs. groundspeed until my father decreed that there would be no more talk about airplanes at the dinner table.

Well, I don't remember the subject we were on at ground school that wintry night, but I'll never forget the lesson I learned.

A car pulled up in front and two bundled up figures made their way inside with some difficulty, buffeted by blasts of wind and snow. They moved awkwardly because of the wind and their heavy coats, an older man helping an obviously impaired younger companion. Larry greeted them warmly, talking to the father (as it turned out), while the tall young man leaned on a cane, a patch over one eye, and said nothing. They'd been out driving on this gloomy night and stopped to say "Hi" when they saw lights on at the hangar. Before they left, the father introduced his son to us, but the tall, young man stayed eerily silent.

When they were gone and the little room warmed up again, Larry wisely abandoned whatever he was teaching and told us the story … at least this is how I remember it:

The previous summer this young friend of Larry's was flying the family's Tri-Pacer from a grass strip on the north side of Cincinnati. Between 1951 and 1963, Piper had cranked out nearly 10,000 of these high-wing, tube and fabric, single-engine PA-22s, two-place Colts and four-place Tri-Pacers. It was Piper's first short-wing model with a nosewheel instead of the dreaded tailwheel and hugely popular with "directionally challenged" generations of pilots.

But nosewheels or tailwheels weren't an issue here. The problem was a significantly overloaded airplane on a short grass runway and the pilot's refusal to "give up" when it wouldn't fly. Oh, it struggled into the air in ground effect but kept stalling back onto land when he tried to climb out of the false lift. This 125 hp model had four seats and 36-gallon wing tanks; full of fuel, that left about 580 pounds for people and baggage. No way would it lift four big guys and fishing gear off a 2,800-foot grass strip on a hot, humid morning in July. The airplane finally plowed through a fence off the end of the runway, and a piece of fence or airplane structure came through the windshield, penetrating deeply into the pilot's head. Not pretty, I know, but that's the way it was and, sadly, that's the way it still happens.

You know my feelings about overregulation and bureaucrats who try to micromanage every aspect of aviating. But FAA's demand that pilots understand loading and balance issues and that they demonstrate proficiency in short-field takeoffs is right on. I have lots of stories about accidents that happened because the pilot tried to "make it fly," including at least one about myself. (Next time you fly into Sporty's at Clermont County Airport — I69 — look for a marker on the west side of Runway 04 memorializing my attempt to "make" an Aeronca 7DC fly on a student's botched takeoff attempt!)

Just before retiring I worked an accident involving two brothers in their Grumman American trying to take off on a 97-degree, windless afternoon from a runway with a 3-degree upslope. Witnesses said that on the first try the pilot obviously wasn't accelerating and that he gave up while there was still room to abort. So even if he hadn't crunched the numbers — and most of us who own an airplane know when they need to be crunched — he used his head. Then why did they taxi back for another attempt? The airplane performed about the same this time, but the pilot, unfortunately, didn't. He was determined to yank it off and did clear the boundary fence but not the tree across the road. A bank, a stall and an impact into a sod field, with the airplane upside-down after one, maybe two, cartwheels. Seeing it from the air in my Cessna 180, I muttered a prayer for those poor souls. But on landing I learned that, unbelievably, they had escaped with minor injuries, so I didn't need to deploy the holy water. When I interviewed the pilot the next day, I said it was wonderful that he and his brother were OK and that I sincerely hoped his cuts and bruises would hurt like hell for a long time.

I guess the lesson from that long-ago, eerie night at ground school is that sometimes "you've got to know when to give up." But it's the oddest thing … I've talked to lots of people who are still around about that awful Tri-Pacer accident and the specter of that dreadfully injured man. Nobody remembers … there aren't any records … was it a dream?

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.